So he went up to her, and greeted her pleasantly, and asked her what news there was in that part of the world.
"News," said she, looking up at him with a roguish smile, for it was not often that she had the opportunity of talking with such a gallant knight. "Nay, by my troth, I have no news, for I am but a poor working maiden, who toils hard for her living; but one thing I can tell thee, an' if thou be a true Scot at heart, thou wilt do all in thy power to shield him."
"To shield whom?" asked Wallace in surprise. "I know not of whom thou speakest."
"Why! Sir William Wallace," answered the girl, "that gallant man who will deliver this poor country of ours. 'Tis known that he is in these parts; he hath been traced from Lanark, and 'tis thought that he is making for the hills, where his followers are; and this very day a body of these cursed English have marched into the town, in order to search the country and take him. Look, seest thou that little hostelry yonder? There hath a band of them gone in there not half an hour ago. Certs, had I been a man, I would e'en have gone myself, and measured my strength against theirs. I tell thee this, because thou seemest a gallant fellow, and perchance thou canst do something to save the knight."
Wallace smiled. "Had I but a penny in my pocket," he said, "I would betake me to that little inn, just to see these English loons."
The maiden hesitated. She was poor, as she had said, and had to work hard for her living, but it chanced that that day she had half a crown in her pocket, which she had intended to spend in the town on her way home. But her kind heart was stirred with pity at the thought of such a goodly young man having no money in his pocket, and at last she took out the half-crown and gave it to him.
"Take this," she said, "and go and buy meat and drink with it, and if thou knowest where Wallace is, for the love of Heaven, betray him not to these English knaves."
"I will serve Wallace e'en as I serve myself," he said, "and more can no man promise," and, thanking her heartily for the piece of silver, he strode off in the direction of the little hostler-house, leaving her wondering what he meant by his strange answer.
Wallace had not gone very far on his way before he met a beggar man, coming limping along, clad in an old patched cloak. This was the very thing the knight wanted.
"Hullo, old man," he said; "how goes the world with thee, and what news is there abroad in Perth?"
"News, master?" said the beggar. "No news that I know of, save that 'tis said that Sir William Wallace is somewhere hereabouts, and a party of English soldiers have come to hunt for him. As I craved a bite of bread at the door of that hostler-house down yonder, I saw fifteen of them within, eating and drinking."
"Say ye so, old man?" said Wallace. "That is right good news to me, for I have long had a desire to see an English soldier close at hand. See," and he drew the bright silver half-crown, which he had just received from the maiden, from his pocket, "here is a piece of white money for thee, if thou wilt sell me that old cloak of thine, and thy wallet. Faith, there be as many holes as patches in the cloak; it can scarce serve thee for a covering, and 'twill answer my purpose right well."
Joyfully the beggar agreed to the bargain, and Wallace was left with the cloak, which he threw over his shoulders, and which covered him from head to foot. Pulling his cap well over his eyes, and choosing a trusty thorn cudgel from a neighbouring thicket, he went limping up to the door of the little inn, and knocked.
The captain who was with the English soldiers opened it. He looked the lame beggar up and down.
"What dost thou want, thou cruikit carle?" he asked haughtily.
"An alms, master," answered the beggar humbly. "I am a poor lame man, and unable to work, and I travel the country from end to end, begging my daily bread."
"Ah," thought the captain to himself, "this man must hear all the country gossip. Likely enough he knows where Wallace is, or the direction in which 'tis thought he will travel."
He took a handful of gold from his pouch, and held it before the beggar's eyes.
"Did you ever hear of a man called William Wallace?" he asked slowly; "the country folk hereabouts talk a great deal of him. They call him 'hero,' and such-like names. But he is a traitor to our rightful King, King Edward, and I am here to take him, alive or dead. Hast ever heard of the fellow?"
"Ay," said the beggar, "I have both heard of him and seen him. Moreover," and he looked at the gold, "I know where he is to be found."
An eager look came into the English knight's face. "I will pay thee fifty pounds down," he said, "fifty pounds of good red money, if thou wilt lead me to Sir William Wallace."
"Tell down the money on this bench," cried the beggar, "for it is in my power to grant thy request, and verily, I will never have a better offer, no, not if I wait till King Edward comes himself."
The English captain counted down the money on the old worm-eaten wooden bench that stood beside the door of the inn, and the beggar counted it after him, and picked it up, and put it carefully away in his wallet. Then he faced the Englishman with a strange gleam in his eyes.
"Thou wouldst fain see William Wallace," he said. "Then see him thou shalt, and feel the might of his arm too, which is more, belike, than thou bargainedst for," and, before the astonished captain could grasp his sword, he had let the beggar's cloak fall to the ground, and, lifting his stout cudgel, he had given him such a clout over the head, that his skull cracked like a nut, and he fell dead at his feet.
Without waiting to take breath, Wallace drew his sword, and, running lightly upstairs, he burst into the room where the soldiers were just finishing their meal, and before they could rise from the table and grasp their weapons, he had stabbed every one of them to the heart.
The innkeeper's wife, who had just come from the kitchen, and was serving the men rather unwillingly, for she had no love for the English, stood still and stared in amazement.
"God save us!" she said at last, as Wallace stopped and wiped his sword. "But are ye a man, or do you come from the Evil One himself?"
"I am William Wallace," said the stranger, "and I wish that all English soldiers who are in Scotland were even as these men are."
"Amen to that," said the old woman heartily, and then she dropped down on her knees before the embarrassed knight. "Hech, sirs," she said fervently, "to think that my eyes are looking on the Gude Wallace!"
"The Hungry Wallace, ye mean," said the knight with a laugh. "If ye love me, woman, get up from thy knees, and set on meat and drink, for I have scarce tasted food these three days, and my strength is well-nigh gone."
"That will I, right speedily," she cried, and, jumping up, she ran to her husband and told him who the stranger was.
With great goodwill they began to prepare a meal, but hardly had it been dished up, and placed upon the table, before another band of soldiers marched up and surrounded the house. The beggar man had gone into Perth, and told people about the mysterious knight who had bought his old cloak in order that he might go and see the English soldiers, and when the rest of the soldiers in the town got to hear of it, they had suspected at once who he really was, and had come to the help of their companions.
Their suspicions proved true when they caught sight of Wallace through one of the windows.
"Come out, come out, thou false knight," they cried exultingly, "and think not that thou canst escape out of our hands. The tod is taken in his hole this time, and right speedily shall he die."
[Footnote 1: Fox.]
With that they entered the house, and rushed upstairs, thinking that it would be an easy matter to capture the Scottish leader, for they knew that he had no follower with him. But the weak things of this world are able sometimes to confound the mighty, and they had not reckoned that the two old people to whom the inn belonged were prepared to shed the last drop of their blood, rather than that Wallace should come to harm in their house.
So the old man had taken down his broad claymore from the wall, and the old woman had seized a lance, and they stood one on each side of their guest, grasping their weapons with fevered zeal.
Then began a fierce and deadly onslaught in that little room, and many a time it seemed as if the three brave defenders must go down; but Wallace's arm had the strength of ten, and the old man laid on right bravely, and the old woman gave many a deadly thrust with her lance from behind, where she saw it was needed, and so it came to pass that at last every Englishman was slain, and Wallace and his bold helpers were left triumphant.
"Now, surely, I can eat in peace," said he, sitting down to his sorely needed meal, "and then must I begone. For, with thy help, I have done a work here this day that will raise all the English 'twixt Perth and Edinburgh. Mayhap, goodman, thou canst get help to throw these bodies into the river. 'Twill be better for thee that the English find them not in thy house, for I must up and away."
"That can I," said the old man, "for the good folk of Perth think much of thee, and very little of the English, therefore will they give me a hand."
[Footnote 2: Help me.]
So once more Wallace took the road to the North, and as he retraced his steps across the North Inch, he passed the rosy-cheeked maiden again, busy at her work. She was laying the clothes out to bleach now, and she gave him a friendly nod as he approached.
"I hope, fair sir, that thou hast seen the English," she said, "and that thou hast come by food at the same time?"
"That have I," said Wallace; "thanks to thy gentle charity, I have eaten and drunk to my heart's content. I have seen the English soldiers too, and, by my troth, the English soldiers have also seen me. The day that I visited that little hostler-house is not likely to be forgotten by the English army."
Then he put his hand in his pocket, and drew out twenty pounds in good red gold.
"Take that," he said to the astonished damsel, pressing the money into her hand as he spoke. "Thy half-crown brought me luck, and this is but thy rightful share of it."
So saying, he took his way quickly towards the hills, leaving the girl so bewildered, that, had it not been for the money in her hand, she would have been inclined to think that it was all a dream.
As it was, she never quite believed that it was a human being who had taken away her silver half-crown, and brought her back twenty gold pieces, but talked of ghosts, and visions; and some people, when they heard of the thirty English soldiers who lay dead in the little hostler-house, were inclined to be of her opinion.
THE WARLOCK O' OAKWOOD
"Ae gloamin' as the sinking sun Gaed owre the wastlin' braes, And shed on Oakwood's haunted towers His bright but fading rays,
Auld Michael sat his leafu' lane Down by the streamlet's side, Beneath a spreading hazel bush, And watched the passing tide."
The bright rays of the setting sun were shining over the valley of Ettrick, and lighting up the stone turrets on the old tower of Oakwood.
For many a long year the old tower had stood empty, while its owner, Sir Michael Scott, one of the most learned men who ever lived, wandered in distant lands, far across the sea.
He had been a mere boy when he left it, to study at Durham and Oxford: then the love of learning had carried him first of all to Paris, where he had been famed for his skill in mathematics; then to Italy, and finally to Spain, where he had studied alchemy under the Moors, and had learned from them, so 'twas said, much of the magic of the East, so that he had power over spirits, and could command them to come and go at his bidding, and could read the stars, and cure the sick, and do many other wonderful things, which made all men regard him as a wizard.
And now that he had come back to his old home once more, the country folk avoided him, and gazed with awe at the great square tower where, they said, he spent most of his time, practising his magic art, and holding converse with the powers of darkness.
The King, on the other hand, thought much of this most learned knight, and would fain have seen more of him at his court in Edinburgh, but Sir Michael loved the country best, and spent most of his time there, writing, or reading, or making experiments.
This evening, however, he was not in his tower, but was sitting by the side of the Ettrick, studying with deepest interest all the sights and sounds of nature which were going on around him. For he loved nature, this studious, quiet, middle-aged man, and the sight of the little minnows darting about in the water, and the trouts hiding under the stones, and the partridges coming whirring across the cornfields, gave him as much pleasure as all the wonderful sights which he had seen in far-off lands.
Suddenly he raised his head and listened. Far away in the distance he seemed to hear the sound of trumpets, and the "thud," "thud" of horses' hoofs, as if a body of men were riding quickly towards him.
"Some strangers are approaching," he said to himself, "and if I am not mistaken they are soldiers. I will hasten home and learn their errand. Mayhap it is a message from his Majesty the King."
He rose to his feet slowly, for his limbs were somewhat cramped with sitting, and walked with stately dignity to the tower.
The riders had just arrived, and, as he expected, they bore a message from the King. As he approached, a knight clad in full armour rode forward, preceded by a man-at-arms, and, bending low over his horse's neck, presented to him a parchment packet, sealed with the Royal Seal.
"The King of Scotland, whom God preserve, sends greetings to his loyal cousin Sir Michael Scott," he said, "and whereas various French sailors have committed acts of piracy on the high seas, and have attacked and robbed divers Scottish vessels, he lays on him his Royal commands that he will betake himself to France with all speed, and deliver this packet into the hands of the French King. And, further, that he will demand that an answer to the writing contained therein be given him at once, and that he hasten back with all dispatch, and draw not rein, nor tarry, till he deliver the answer to the King in Edinburgh."
Sir Michael took the packet from the messenger's hand and bowed gravely. He was accustomed to receive such orders, and everyone wondered at the marvellously quick way in which he obeyed them.
"Carry my humblest greetings to his Majesty," he answered, "and assure him that I will lose no time, but will at once set about making my preparations. By dawn of day I will be gone, mounted on the swiftest steed that ever the eye of mortal man gazed upon."
"Is it swifter than the horse which his Majesty keeps for his own use at Dunfermline?" asked the soldier curiously. "For if it is, it must indeed be a noble animal, and 'twould fetch a good price among the barons of the court. Ever since his Majesty has turned his mind so much to horses, his courtiers have vied with each other to see which of them could become the possessor of the swiftest animal."
"My horse is not for sale," said Sir Michael shortly, "not though men offered me his weight in gold."
The young officer bowed again. There was something in Sir Michael's tone which forbade him asking to see the horse, much as he should have liked to do so; so, giving a signal to his men, he turned his horse's head in the direction of Edinburgh, and rode off, leaving Sir Michael standing on the doorstep gazing after them, a strange smile on his face.
"A good price," he repeated; "by my troth, 'twould need to be a very good price which would buy my good Diabolus from me. But I must go and summon him."
Muttering strangely to himself, he turned and entered the tower.
He went up the narrow, winding, stone stairs until he reached a little iron-studded door. This door was locked, but he opened it with a key which hung from his girdle, and, entering the low-roofed attic-room to which it led, he locked it again carefully behind him. The attic was at the top of the tower, and through the narrow windows which pierced three of its walls, a glorious view was to be had over the surrounding country.
But Sir Michael had not come up there to admire the view; he had other work to do—work which seemed to need mysterious preparations.
First of all, he proceeded to dress himself in a curiously shaped black cloak, and a hunting cap made of hair, which he took down from a nail in the wall. The cloak was very long, and completely enveloped his figure, and, when he had pulled the hairy cap well down over his eyes, no one would have taken him, I warrant, for the quiet, middle-aged, master of Oakwood.
When he was dressed he took down a leaden platter from a shelf by the door, and, opening a cupboard, he took out a little glass bottle full of a clear amber-coloured liquid, which glowed like melted fire. Setting down the platter on a little round table in the middle of the room, he dropped one or two drops of this liquid on it, and in an instant they broke into tongues of flame which curled up high above his head.
It was a strange and weird fire, enough to frighten any man, but the still, dark-robed figure standing beside it never moved, not even when a number of tiny little imps appeared, clad in scarlet, and green, and blue, and purple, and danced round and round it on the table, tossing their tiny arms, and twisting their queer little faces, as if they had gone mad.
He waited patiently until the little creatures had finished their dance and disappeared, then he seized the platter, and, going to one of the narrow windows, he flung it open, and, pushing the platter through it, he threw it, with its burning load, far out into the gathering twilight.
He watched the fire as it fell, in glowing fragments, among the oak trees which surrounded the tower, then he opened a small, black, leathern-bound book, which lay chained to a monk's desk which stood in a corner. Opening it he read a few words in an unknown tongue, then he turned to the window again and waved a little silver wand over his head three times.
"Come, Diabolus. Come, Diabolus," he muttered, and then he knelt on the floor and waited eagerly, his eyes fixed on the Western horizon.
The sun had sunk, but the sky was clear, and one or two stars had appeared, and were shining out peacefully, like little candles set in a golden haze.
Presently, however, big black clouds began to appear, and pile up, one against another, till the little stars were blotted out, and the whole sky became as black as night.
In a little time the dull muttering of thunder could be heard far away over the woods. It came nearer and nearer—crash upon crash, and roar upon roar—while the lightning flashed, and a perfect tempest of wind arose and lashed the branches of the tall trees into fury. Truly it was an awful storm.
The wizard felt the solid masonry of the tower rock beneath him, but he was as calm as if only a little gust of wind had been passing on a summer's day.
Still he knelt on, peering eagerly into the darkness. At last his eyes grew bright and keen, for he saw a shadowy form come floating through the air, driven by the wind. He knew now that his charm had worked, and that this was his familiar spirit—the spirit over whom he had most control—who had come in the form of a great black horse, with flaming eyes, and flowing mane, to carry him over the sea to France.
With one bound he flew through the window, and alighted on its back.
"Now woe betide thee, Diabolus," he said, "if thou fliest not swiftly. For I must be in Paris by daylight to-morrow."
The huge black horse shook its mane, and snorted fiercely, as if it understood, and without more ado it flew on its way, its uncanny black-cloaked rider seated on its back.
As soon as they had disappeared, the storm died away, and the moon rose, and the little stars shone out over Oakwood Tower as clearly and quietly as if there had never been a cloud in the sky. Meanwhile Sir Michael Scott and his huge black charger were flying over hills, and valleys, and rivers, in the darkness. They even flew over the sea itself, and never halted until the day broke, and there, far below, lay the city of Paris, dimly seen in the gray morning light.
In the King's Palace the lackeys were hardly awake. They gazed at one another in astonishment when the heavy iron knocker on the great gate fell with a knock that echoed through the courtyard.
"Who dares to knock so loudly at this early hour?" asked the fat old porter in great indignation. "Whoever it be, I trow he may e'en wait outside till I have broken my fast."
But before he had done speaking the knocker fell once more, and there was something so commanding in the sound that the little man hurried off, grumbling to himself, to get the key.
"Beshrew me if it doth not sound like a messenger from some great king," said a man-at-arms who was standing by, and the porter's heart misgave him at the thought that perhaps by his tardiness he had got himself into trouble.
But when he opened the great door, instead of the company of armed men whom he dreaded to see, there was only a solitary rider, muffled in a great black cloak, and wearing a hairy cap drawn down over his face, seated on an enormous black horse. The stranger's dress was so outlandish, and his horse so big, that the porter crossed himself.
"Surely 'tis the Evil One himself," he muttered; and when the lackeys heard his words, they crowded round the doorway. They, too, were puzzled at Sir Michael's appearance, and began to laugh and jeer at him.
"He is like a hooded crow," cried one.
"Nay, 'tis an old wife in her husband's clothes," shouted another.
"Surely the cloak belonged to Noah," cried a third.
But they started back in dismay when the muffled figure pushed up his cap, and demanded an audience of the King.
"I come from the King of Scotland," he said haughtily, "and his business brooks no delay."
A shout of laughter greeted his demand.
"Thou a messenger from the King of Scotland!" they cried. "A likely story, forsooth! The King of Scotland sends not beggars, in old rusty suits, as his ambassadors. No, no, my good fellow, thou askest us to believe too much. Whatever thou art, thou art not a king's messenger."
"What!" cried Sir Michael. "Ye refuse to do my bidding! and all because I am not decked out in crimson and gold, and ridest alone without a retinue. Well, ye shall see that it is not always wise to judge of a man by his outward appearance. Make way there." And without wasting any more words, he leaped from his horse, and, throwing its bridle over a pillar, he strode right through the middle of them, and made his way to the King's private apartment, without even waiting to be announced.
Now the King of France was accustomed to be treated with great ceremony, and when this dark-robed man strode into his bed-chamber, and held out the parchment packet to him, demanding an instant answer, he was very indignant, and refused to open it.
"Thou sayest that thou comest from the King of Scots," he said. "Well, I believe thee not. If thou wert Sir Michael Scott, as thou sayest thou art, thou wouldst have come with an armed escort, as befitted thy rank and station. Therefore begone, Sirrah, and count thyself happy that I have not had thee thrown into one of the palace dungeons, as a punishment for thy insolence."
"By my troth," cried Sir Michael angrily, "if this is the way thou wouldst answer my master's demands, I trow I can soon bring thee to a better frame of mind."
Without waiting for an answer, he flung down the parchment packet on the floor, and strode out of the room in the same way that he had entered, leaving the angry King gazing after him in astonishment.
"The fellow is mad," he cried to the nobles who stood round. "See to it that he is shut up until he comes to his senses."
But Sir Michael had already reached the courtyard, and passed through the great door to where his horse was waiting outside. He lowered his voice and spoke gently to the mighty beast.
"Stamp, my steed, and show the varlets that we are better than we seem to be," he said. And at his bidding the gigantic creature lifted one of its forefeet, and brought it down with all its might on the pavement.
In an instant it was as though an earthquake were passing over the city. The great towers of the Palace which frowned overhead rocked and swayed, and all the bells on a hundred church steeples chimed and jangled, until the air was thick with the sound of them.
The King and his courtiers were very much alarmed at these strange events, but they did not like to own that it was the mysterious stranger who was the cause of them. All the same, the King called a hurried council, and when the nobles were assembled, and seated in their places in the great hall, he opened the parchment packet, and took out the papers which it contained. When he had read them his face flushed with anger. The King of Scotland's demands were very urgent, and moreover they were stated in no uncertain language, and as he considered that he was a much more powerful monarch than King Alexander, he did not like to be dictated to.
"Ah," he said, "so my Lord of Scotland lays down his own terms with a high hand. Methinks he must learn that this is not the way to obtain favours from France."
"Ay, so in good sooth he must learn," repeated the nobles in one breath. "And in order that the lesson be made plain, we advise that his messenger be cast into prison, and that no notice be taken of his requests."
"Your advice pleases me well," said the King. "Command that the officers seize the fellow at once. Certs, he may think himself lucky that We permit his head to remain on his shoulders."
The command was given, but Sir Michael had been growing more and more impatient that no more notice seemed to be taken of his errand, and when the officers of the guard appeared, and, instead of handing him the French King's answer, as he had expected, laid their hands on him to drag him off to prison, his anger knew no bounds.
"What," he cried, "doth the King still refuse to listen? By my troth, he shall rue the delay," and once more he whispered in the black horse's ear, and once more the mighty creature lifted its great forefoot and brought it down with a crash on the pavement.
The effect was even more terrible than it had been before.
In an instant great thunder clouds rolled up from the horizon, and a fearful storm broke over the city. The thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, and strange and weird figures were seen floating in the air. The great bells which hung in the steeple of the great Cathedral of Notre Dame gave one awful crash, and then burst in two, while the towers and pinnacles of the splendid church came tumbling down in the darkness. The very foundations of the Palace were shaken, and rocked to and fro, till everyone within it was thrown to the ground. The King himself was hurled from his throne of state, and was so badly hurt that he cried aloud with pain and fear.
As for the courtiers, they lay about the floor in all directions, paralysed with terror, crossing themselves, and calling on the Saints to help them. They were so terrified that not one of them thought of going to their Royal Master's aid.
The King was the first to recover himself. "Alack! alack!" he groaned, rising to his feet. "Woe betide the day that brought this fellow to our land! Warlock or wizard, I know not which, but one of them he must be, for no mere mortal man could have had the power to work this harm to our city."
While he was speaking a loud trampling of feet was heard outside the great hall, and all the lackeys came tumbling in, pell-mell, without waiting to do their reverence, just as if the King had been any common man.
"O Sire," they cried, "grant the fellow anything and everything he asks, and let him be gone. He threatens that he will cause this awful beast to stamp yet once again, and, if he does, the whole land of France will be ruined. If your Majesty but knew what harm hath been wrought in the city already!"
"Yes, let him begone," wailed the courtiers, slowly beginning to pick themselves up from the floor, and feeling their bones to see if any of them were broken.
And, indeed, the King was nothing loth to grant their request, for he felt that if the mysterious stranger were allowed to stand at the door much longer his whole kingdom would be tumbling to pieces about his ears. Better far that the King of Scotland should be satisfied, even although it was sorely against his inclinations.
With trembling fingers he picked up the papers and once more read them. Then he wrote an answer promising to fulfil all the Scotch King's demands and he sealed up the packet, and flung it to the nearest lackey.
"Give it to him and bid him begone," he cried, and a sigh of relief went round the hall, as a minute later the man returned with the tidings that the great black horse and its outlandish rider had vanished.
"Heaven grant that when next my Cousin of Scotland sends an ambassador, he choose another man," said the King, and there was not a soul in all the palace who did not breathe a fervent "Amen."
Meanwhile, Sir Michael and his wonderful steed were speeding along on their homeward way. They had crossed the north of France, and were flying over the Straits of Dover, when the creature began to think that it might work a little mischief on its own account.
It had taken a sudden fancy to remain in France for a while, and it thought how nice it would be if it could pitch its master, whom it rather feared than loved, over its head into the water, and so be rid of him for ever.
It knew that as long as it was under his spell, it had to do his bidding, but it knew also that there were certain words which could break the spell even of a wizard, and it began to wonder if it would be possible to make Sir Michael pronounce one of these.
"Master," it said at last slyly, for when it wanted it had the power of speech, "I know little about Scottish ways, but I have oft-times been told that the old wives and children there mutter some words to themselves ere they go to bed. 'Tis some spell, I warrant, and I would fain know it. Canst tell me the words?"
Now the wily animal knew perfectly well what words the children of Scotland were taught to repeat as they knelt at night at their mother's knee, but it hoped that its master would answer without thinking.
But Sir Michael had not studied magic for long years for nothing, and he knew that if he answered that the women and children in Scotland bowed their knees and said their Pater Noster ere they went to bed, the holy words would break the spell, and he would be at the mercy of the fiend, who, when he needed him, was obliged to take the form of a horse, or serve him in any other way which he required.
So he shook the creature's bridle and answered sharply, "What is that to thee, Diabolus? Attend to the business thou hast in hand, and vex not thy soul with silly questions. If thou truly desirest to know what the bairns are taught to say at bed-time, then I would advise thee, when thou art in Scotland, and hast time to spare from thy wicked devices, to go and stand by a cottage window, and learn for thyself. Mayhap the knowledge will do thee good. In the meantime think no more of the matter, unless thou wouldst feel the weight of my wand on thy flanks."
Now, if there was one thing which the great horse feared, it was the wizard's magic wand, so he put his mind to his work, and flew with all the swiftness he possessed northwards over England, and across the Cheviots, until at last they came in sight of Edinburgh, and the Royal Palace of Holyrood.
Here Sir Michael slid from his back, and dismissed him with a little wave of his wand. "Avaunt, Diabolus," he said, and at the words the magic horse vanished into thin air, and, strange to say, the black cloak and hairy cap which the wizard had worn on the journey seemed to fall from him and vanish also, and he was left standing, a middle-aged, dignified gentleman, clad in a suit of sober brown.
He hurried down to the Palace, and sought an instant audience of the King. The lackeys bowed low, and the doors flew open before him, as he was led into his Majesty's presence, for at the Court of Holyrood Sir Michael Scott was a very great person indeed.
But for once a frown gathered on King Alexander's face when he saw him. Kings expect to be obeyed, and he was not prepared to see the man appear whom he had ordered off to France with all speed the day before.
"What ho! Sir Michael," he said coldly. "Is this the way that thou carriest out our royal orders. In good sooth I wish I had chosen a more zealous messenger."
Sir Michael smiled gravely. "Wilt please my Sovereign Lord to receive this packet from the hand of the King of France?" he said with a stately bow. "Methinks that he will find that in it all his demands are granted, and that I have obeyed his behests to the best of my power."
The King was utterly taken aback. He wondered if Sir Michael were playing some trick on him, for it was absolutely impossible that he could have gone and come from France in twenty-four hours.
When he opened the packet, however, he saw that it was no trick. In utter amazement he called for his courtiers, and they crowded round him to examine the papers. They were all in order, and all the requests had been granted without more ado. Reparation was to be made for the damage that had been done to the Scottish ships, and in future all acts of piracy would be severely punished. It was evident that the papers had been taken to Paris, for there was the French King's own seal, and there was his name signed in his own handwriting, though how they had been carried thither so quickly, nobody ventured to say.
"'Tis safer not to ask, your Majesty," whispered one old knight, making the sign of the Cross as he spoke, "for there are strange tales afloat, which say that the Lord of Oakwood keeps a familiar spirit in that ancient tower of his, who is ready to do his bidding at all times; and, by my soul, this goes far to prove it."
The King looked round uneasily, in case Sir Michael had heard this last sentence. He felt that if this were true, and he were a wizard, as men hinted, it was best not to incur his displeasure; but he need not have been afraid. The Lord of Oakwood loved not courts, and now that he had done his errand, and the papers were safe in the King's hand, he had taken advantage of the astonishment of the courtiers to slip unobserved through the crowd, and, having borrowed a horse from the royal stables, he was now riding leisurely out of the city, on his way home to his old tower on the banks of the Ettrick.
"O wha hasna heard o' the bauld Juden Murray, The Lord o' the Elibank Castle sae high? An' wha hasna heard o' that notable foray, Whan Willie o' Harden was catched wi' the kye?"
Of all the towers and castles which belonged to the old Border reivers, there was none which was better suited to its purpose than the ancient house of Harden. It stood, as the house which succeeded it stands to this day, at the head of a deep and narrow glen, looking down on the Borthwick Water, not far from where it joins the Teviot.
It belonged to Walter Scott, "Wat o' Harden," as he was called, a near kinsman and faithful ally of the "Bold Buccleuch," who lived just over the hill, at Branksome.
Wat was a noted freebooter. Never was raid or foray but he was well to the front, and when, as generally happened, the raid or foray resulted in a drove of English cattle finding their way over the Liddesdale hills, and down into Teviotdale, the Master of Harden had no difficulty in guarding his share of the spoil. The entrance to his glen was so narrow, and its sides so steep and rocky, that he had only to drive the tired beasts into it, and set a strong guard at the lower end, and then he and his retainers could take things easily for a time, and live in plenty, till some fine day the beef would be done, and his wife, Dame Mary, whom folk named the "Flower of Yarrow" in her youth, would serve him up a pair of spurs underneath the great silver cover, as a hint that the larder was empty, and that it was full time that he should mount and ride for more.
'Twas little wonder that his five sons grew up to love this free roving life, to which they had always been accustomed, and that they took ill with the change when, in 1603, at the Union of the Crowns, Scotland and England became one country, and King James determined to put down raiding and reiving with a high hand.
It was difficult at first, but gradually a change came about. Courts of justice were established in the Border towns, where law-breakers were tried, and promptly punished, and the heads of the most powerful clans banded themselves together to put down bloodshed and robbery, and a time of quietness bade fair to settle down on the distressed district.
To the old folk, tired of incessant fighting, this change was welcome; but the younger men found their occupation gone, while as yet they had no thought of turning to some more peaceable pursuit. The young Scotts of Harden were no exceptions to this rule, and William, the eldest, found matters, after a time, quite unbearable. Moreover, his father's retainers were growing discontented with their quiet life, and scanty fare, for beef was not so plentiful at Harden now that Border law forbade its being stolen from England; so, without telling either his father or his brothers of his intention, he took a band of chosen men, and rode over, in the gray light of an early spring morning, to the house of William Hogg of Fauldshope, one of the chief retainers of the family.
William was a man of great bravery, and so fierce and strong that he had earned for himself the name of the "Wild Boar of Fauldshope."
He was still in bed when the party from Harden arrived, but rose hastily when they knocked. Great was his astonishment when he saw his young master with a band of armed men behind him.
"What cheer, Master?" he said, "and what doest thou out at this time of day? Faith, it minds me of the good old times, when some rider would come in haste to my door, to tell me that Auld Buccleuch had given orders to warn the water."
[Footnote 3: To call the countrymen to arms.]
"Heaven send that those times come back again," said young Harden piously, "else shall we soon be turned into a pack of old wives. The changes that have come to Harden be more than I can stand, Willie. Not so many years past we were aye as busy as a swarm of bees. When we had a mind, and had nought else to do, we leaped on our horses and headed towards Cumberland. There were ever some kine to be driven, or a house or two to be burned, or some poor widow to be avenged, or some prisoner to be released. So things went right merrily, and the larder was always full. But now that this cursed peace hath come, and King Jamie reigns in London—plague on the man for leaving this bonnie land!—the place is as quiet as the grave, and the horses grow fat, and our men grow lean, and they quarrel and fight among themselves all day, an' all because they have nought else to do. Moreover, the pastures round Harden grow rough for want of eating. We need a drove of cattle to keep them down. So I have e'en come over to take counsel with thee, Will, for thou art a man after mine own heart, and I have brought a few of the knaves at my back. What think ye, man, is there no one we could rob? Fain would I ride over the Border to harry the men of Cumberland, but thou knowest how it is. My kinsman of Buccleuch is Warden of the Marches, and responsible for keeping the peace, and sore dule and woe would come to my father's house were I to stir up strife now that we are supposed to be all one land."
"Ay, by my troth," said Will of Fauldshope, "the fat would be in the fire if we were to ride into Cumberland nowadays; but, Master, the Warden hath no right to interfere with lawful quarrels. There is the Laird o' Elibank, for instance, old Sir Juden. Deil take me if anyone could blame us if we paid him a visit. For all the world knows how often some cows, or a calf or two, have vanished on a dark night from the hillsides at Harden, and though a Murray hath never yet been ta'en red-handed, it is easy to know where the larders o' Elibank get their plenishing. Turn about is fair play, say I, and now that the pastures at Harden are empty, 'tis time that we thought of taking our revenge. Sir Juden was a wily man in his youth, and sly as a pole-cat, but men say that nowadays he hath grown doited, and does nought but sit with his wife and his three ugly daughters from morning till night. All the same, he hath managed to feather his nest right well. 'Twas told me at Candlemas that he hath no less than three hundred fat cattle grazing in the meadows that lie around Elibank."
[Footnote 4: In his dotage.]
Willie o' Harden slapped his thigh.
"That settles the matter," he cried, with a ring in his voice at the thought of the adventure that lay before him. "Three hundred kye are far too many for one old man to herd. Let him turn his mind to his three ill-faured daughters, whom no man will wed because of their looks. This very night we will ride over into Ettrick, and lift a wheen o' them. My father's Tower of Oakwood lies not far from Elibank, and when once we have driven the beasts into the Oakwood byres, 'twill take old Sir Juden all his time to prove that they ever belonged to him."
[Footnote 5: Plain-looking.]
[Footnote 6: Few.]
Late that afternoon Sir Juden Murray was having a daunder in the low-lying haughs which lay along the banks of the Tweed, close to his old tower. His hands were clasped behind his back, under his coat tails, and his head was sunk low on his breast. He appeared to be deep in meditation, and so indeed he was. There was a matter which had been pressing heavily on his mind for some time, and it troubled him more every day.
[Footnote 7: Gentle walk.]
The fact was, that it was a sore anxiety to him how he was going to provide for his three daughters, for Providence had endowed them with such very plain features that it seemed extremely unlikely that any gay wooer would ever stop before the door of Elibank. Meg, the eldest, was especially plain-looking. She was pale and thin, with colourless eyes, and a long pointed nose, and, to make matters worse, she had such a very wide mouth that she was known throughout the length and breadth of four counties as "Muckle-Mou'ed Meg o' Elibank."
No wonder her father sighed as he thought of her, for, in spite of his greed and his slyness, Sir Juden was an affectionate father, as fathers went in those days, and the lot of unmarried ladies of the upper class, at that time, was a hard one.
He was roused from his thoughts by someone shouting to him from the top of the neighbouring hill. It was one of his men-at-arms, and the old man stood for a moment with his hand at his ear, to listen to the fellow's words. They came faintly down the wind.
"I fear evil betakes us, Sir Juden, for far in the distance I hear bugles sounding at Oakwood Tower. I would have said that the Scotts of Harden were riding, were it not for Buccleuch and his new laws."
Sir Juden shook his grizzled head. "Little cares Auld Wat o' Harden, or any o' his kind, either for Warden or laws, notwithstanding that the Warden is his own kith and kin. As like as not they have heard tell o' my bonnie drove of cattle, and would fain have some of them. Run, sirrah, and warn our friends; no one can find fault with us if we fight in self-defence."
No sooner had the first man disappeared to do his master's bidding, than another approached, running down the hillside as fast as he could. He was quite out of breath when he came up to the Laird, and no wonder, for he had run all the way from Philip-Cairn, one of the highest hills in the neighbourhood.
"Oh, Sir Juden," he gasped, "lose no time, but arm well, and warn well, if thou wouldst keep thine own. From the top of the hill I saw armed men in the distance, and it was not long ere I knew the knaves. 'Tis a band of reivers led by the young Knight of Harden, and, besides his own men, he hath with him the Wild Boar of Fauldshope, and all the Hoggs and the Brydons."
"By my troth, but thou bringest serious tidings," said Sir Juden, thoroughly alarmed, for he knew what deadly fighters Willie o' Harden and the Boar of Fauldshope were, and, without wasting words, he hurried away to his tower to make the best preparations he could for the coming fray.
He knew that even with all the friends who would muster round him, the men of Plora, and Traquair, and Ashiestiel, and Hollowlee, Harden's force would far outnumber his, and his only hope lay in outwitting the enemy, who were better known for their bravery than for their guile.
So when all his friends were assembled, instead of stationing them near the castle, he led them out to a steep hill-side, some miles away, where he knew the Scotts must pass with the cattle, on their way to Oakwood. As the night was dark, he bade each of them fasten a white feather in his cap, so that, when they were fighting, they would know who were their friends and who their foes, and he would not allow them to stand about on the hill-side, but made them lie down hidden in the heather until he gave them the signal to rise.
He knew well what he was doing, for he was as cunning as a fox, and neither the Knight of Harden nor the Wild Boar of Fauldshope, brave though they were, were a match for him.
They, on their part, thought things were going splendidly, for when they rode up in the darkness of midnight to the Elibank haughs, all was quiet; not so much as a dog barked. It was not difficult to collect a goodly drove of fat cattle, and, as long as the animals were driven along a familiar path, all went well. But all the world knows the saying about "a cow in an unca loaning," and it held good in this case. The moment the animals' heads were turned to the hills that lay between Elibank and Oakwood the trouble began. They broke in confusion, and ran hither and thither in the darkness, lowing and crying in great bewilderment.
[Footnote 8: A cow in a strange lane or milking-place.]
"Faith, but this will never do," exclaimed Will of Fauldshope; "if the beasts bellow at this rate, they will awaken old Sir Juden and his sons, and they will set on in pursuit. Not that that would matter much, but we may as well do the job with as little bloodshed as possible. See, I and my men will take a dozen or so, and push on over the hill. If once the way be trodden the rest will follow."
So Will of Fauldshope and his men went their way cheerily up the hill, and over its crest, and down the other side, on their way to Oakwood, with a handful of cattle before them, little recking that Sir Juden and his sons, whom they thought to be sleeping peacefully at Elibank, were crouching among the heather with their friends and retainers, or that they had ridden over a few of them on their way, and that, as soon as they were past, and out of earshot, and young Harden came on with the main body of the stolen cattle, the Murrays would rise and set on him with sudden fierceness, and after a sharp and bloody conflict would take him prisoner, and kill many a brave man.
Nor would Will have heard of the fight at all, until he had arrived at Oakwood, and his suspicions had been aroused by the fact that young Harden did not follow him, had it not been for a trusty fellow called Andrew o' Langhope, who was knocked down in the fight, and who thought that he could serve his master best by lying still. So he pretended to be dead, and lay motionless until the fray was over, and poor young Scott bound hand and foot, and carried off in triumph by the Murrays; then he sprang to his feet, and ran off in pursuit of Will of Fauldshope as fast as his legs could carry him.
Now, if there was one man on earth whom the Wild Boar of Fauldshope and his men loved, it was the young Knight of Harden. He was so handsome, and brave, and debonair, a very leader among men, that I ween there was dire confusion among them when they heard Andrew o' Langhope's tale. A great oath fell from Will's lips as he threw off his jerkin and helmet, to ease his horse, and turned and galloped over the hill again, followed by all his company.
But in spite of their haste they were too late. The dawn was breaking as they reined up on the green in front of Elibank, and the gray morning light showed them that the stout oak door was closed, and the great iron gates made fast. By now young Harden was safe in the lowest dungeon, and right well they knew that only once again would he breathe the fresh air of heaven, and that would be when he was led out to die under the great dule-tree on the green.
Bitter tears of grief and rage filled the Boar of Fauldshope's eyes at the thought, but no more could be done, except to ride over to Harden, and tell old Sir Walter Scott of the fate that had befallen his eldest son.
* * * * *
"Juden, Juden." It was the Lady of Elibank's voice, and it woke her husband out of the only sound sleep he had had, for he had been terribly troubled with bad dreams all night: dreams not, as one would have imagined, of the fight which he had passed through, but of his eldest daughter Meg, and her sad lack of wooers.
"What is it?" he asked drowsily, as he looked across the room to where his worthy spouse, Dame Margaret Murray, already up and dressed, stood looking out of the narrow casement.
"I was just wondering," she said slowly, "what thou intendest to do with that poor young man?"
"Do," cried Sir Juden, wide awake now, and starting up in astonishment at the question, for his wife was not wont to be so pitiful towards any of his prisoners. "By'r Lady, but there is only one thing that I shall do. Hang the rogue, of course, and that right speedily."
"What," said the Lady of Elibank, and she turned and looked at her angry husband with an expression which seemed to say that at that moment he had taken leave of his senses; "hang the young Knight of Harden, when I have three ill-favoured daughters to marry off my hands! I wonder at ye, Juden! I aye thought ye had a modicum of common sense, and could look a long way in front of ye, but at this moment I am sorely inclined to doubt it. Mark my words, ye'll never again have such a chance as this. For, besides Harden, he is heir to some of the finest lands in Ettrick Forest. There is Kirkhope, and Oakwood, and Bowhill. Think of our Meg; would ye not like to see the lassie mistress of these? And well I wot ye might, for the youth is a spritely young fellow, though given to adventure, as what brave young man is not? And I trow that he would put up with an ill-featured wife, rather than lose his life on our hanging-tree."
[Footnote 9: These lands were sold to the Scotts of Buccleuch sometime afterwards, and the Duke of Buccleuch is the present owner.]
Sir Juden looked at his wife for full three minutes in silence, and then he broke into a loud laugh. "By my soul, thou art right, Margaret," he said. "Thou wert born with the wisdom of Solomon, though men would scarce think it to look at thee." And he began to dress himself, without more ado.
Less than two hours afterwards, the door of the dungeon where young Scott was confined was thrown open with a loud and grating noise, and three men-at-arms appeared, and requested the prisoner, all bound as he was, to follow them.
Willie obeyed without a word. He had dared, and had been defeated, and now he must pay the penalty that the times required, and like a brave man he would pay it uncomplainingly, but I warrant that, as he followed the men up the steep stone steps, his heart was heavy within him, and his thoughts were dwelling on the bonnie braes that lay around Harden, where he had so often played when he was a bairn, with his mother, the gentle "Flower of Yarrow," watching over him, and which he knew he would never see again.
But, to his astonishment, instead of being led straight out to the "dule-tree," as he had expected, he was taken into the great hall, and stationed close to one of the narrow windows. A strange sight met his eyes.
The hall was full of armed men, who were looking about them with broad smiles of amusement, while, on a dais at the far end of the hall, were seated, in two large armchairs, his captor of the night before, Sir Juden Murray, and a severe-looking lady, in a wondrous head-dress, and a stiff silken gown, whom he took to be his wife.
Between them, blushing and hanging her head as if the ordeal was too much for her, was the plainest-looking maiden he had ever seen in his life. She was thin and ill-thriven-looking, very different from the buxom lassies he was accustomed to see: her eyes were colourless; her nose was long and pointed, and the size of her mouth would alone have proclaimed her to be the worthy couple's eldest daughter, Muckle-Mou'ed Meg.
Near the dais stood her two younger sisters. They were plain-looking girls also, but hardly so plain-looking as Meg, and they were laughing and whispering to one another, as if much amused by what was going on.
Sir Juden cleared his throat and crossed one thin leg slowly over the other, while he looked keenly at his prisoner from under his bushy eyebrows.
"Good morrow, young sir," he said at last; "so you and your friends thought that ye would like a score or two o' the Elibank kye. By whose warrant, may I ask, did ye ride, seeing that in those days peace is declared on the Border, and anyone who breaks it, breaks it at his own risk?"
"I rode at my own peril," answered the young man haughtily, for he did not like to be questioned in this manner, "and it is on mine own head that the blame must fall. Thou knowest that right well, Sir Juden, so it seems to me but waste of words to parley here."
"So thou knowest the fate that thy rash deed brings on thee," said Sir Juden hastily, his temper, never of the sweetest, rising rapidly at the young man's coolness. He would fain have hanged him without more ado, did prudence permit; and it was hard to sit still and bargain with him.
"So thou knowest that I have the right to hang thee, without further words," he continued; "and, by my faith, many a man would do it, too, without delay. But thou art young, William, and young blood must aye be roving, that I would fain remember, and so I offer thee another chance."
Here the Lord of Elibank paused and glanced at his wife, to see if he had said the right thing, for it was she who had arranged the scene beforehand, and had schooled her husband in the part he was to play.
Meanwhile young Harden, happening to meet Meg Murray's eyes, and puzzled by the look, half wistful, half imploring, which he saw there, glanced hastily out of the little casement beside which he was standing, and received a rude shock, in spite of all his courage, when he saw a strong rope, with a noose at the end of it, dangling from a stout branch of the dule-tree on the green, while a man-at-arms stood kicking the ground idly beside it, apparently waiting till he should be called on to act as executioner.
"So the old rascal is going to hang me after all," he said to himself; "then what, in Our Lady's name, means this strange mummery, and how comes that ill-favoured maiden to look at me as if her life depended on mine?"
At that moment, old Sir Juden, reassured by a nod from Dame Margaret, went on with his speech.
"I will therefore offer thee another chance, I say, and, moreover, I will throw a herd of the cattle which thou wert so anxious to steal into the bargain, if thou wilt promise, on thy part, to wed my daughter Meg within the space of four days."
Here the wily old man stopped, and the Lady of Elibank nodded her head again, while, as for young Harden, for the moment he was too astonished to speak.
So this was the meaning of it all. He was to be forced to marry the ugliest maiden in the south of Scotland in order to save his life. The vision of his mother's beauty rose before him, and the contrast between the Flower of Yarrow and Muckle-Mou'ed Meg o' Elibank struck him so sharply that he cried out in anger, "By my troth, but this thing shall never be. So do thy worst, Sir Juden."
"Think well before ye choose," said that knight, more disappointed than he would have cared to own at his prisoner's words, "for there are better things in this world than beauty, young man. Many a beautiful woman hath been but a thorn in her husband's side, and forbye that, hast thou not learned in the Good Book—if ever ye find time to read it, which I fear me will be but seldom—that a prudent wife is more to be sought after than a bonnie one? And though my Meg here is mayhap no' sae well-favoured as the lassies over in Borthwick Water, or Teviotdale, I warrant there is not one of them who hath proved such a good daughter, or whose nature is so kind and generous."
[Footnote 10: Besides.]
Still young Harden hesitated, and glanced from the lady, who, poor thing, had hidden her face in her hands, to the gallows, and from the gallows back again to the lady.
Was ever mortal man in such a plight? Here he was, young, handsome, rich, and little more than four-and-twenty, and he must either lose his life on the green yonder, or marry a damsel whom everyone mocked at for her looks.
"If only I could be alone with her for five minutes," he thought to himself, "to see what she looks like, when there is no one to peep and peer at her. The maiden hath not a chance in the midst of this mannerless crowd, and methought her eyes were open and honest, as they looked into mine a little while ago."
At that moment Meg Murray lifted her head once more, and gazed round her like a stag at bay. Poor lassie, it had been bad enough to be jeered at by her father, and flouted and scolded by her mother, because of the unfortunately large mouth with which Providence had endowed her, without being put up for sale, as it were, in the presence of all her father's retainers, and find that the young man to whom she had been offered chose to suffer death rather than have her for a bride.
It was the bitterest moment of all her life, and, had she known it, it was the moment that fixed her destiny.
For young Willie of Harden saw that look, and something in it stirred his pity. Besides, he noticed that her pale face was sweet and innerly, and her gray eyes clear and true.
[Footnote 11: Confiding.]
"Hold," he cried, just as Sir Juden, whose patience was quite exhausted, gave a signal to his men-at-arms to seize the prisoner, and hurry him off to the gallows, "I have changed my mind, and I accept the conditions. But I call all men to witness that I accept not the hand of this noble maiden of necessity, or against my will. I am a Scott, and, had I been minded to, I could have faced death. But I crave the honour of her hand from her father with all humility, and here I vow, before ye all, to do my best to be to her a loyal and a true man."
Loud cheers, and much jesting, followed this speech, and men would have crowded round the young Knight and made much of him, but he pushed his way in grim silence up the hall to where Meg o' Elibank stood trembling by her delighted parents.
She greeted him with a look which set him thinking of a bird which sees its cage flung open, and I wot that, though he did not know it, at that moment he began to love her.
Be that as it may, his words to Sir Juden were short and gruff. "Sir," he asked, "hast thou a priest in thy company? For, if so, let him come hither and finish what we have begun. I would fain spend this night in my own Tower of Oakwood."
Sir Juden and his lady were not a little taken aback at this sudden demand, for, now that the matter was settled to their satisfaction, they would have liked to have married their eldest daughter with more state and ceremony.
"There's no need of such haste," began Dame Margaret, with a look at her lord, "if your word is given, and the Laird satisfied. The morn, or even the next day might do. The lassie's providing must be gathered together, for I would not like it said that a bride went out of Elibank with nothing but the clothes she stood in."
[Footnote 12: Trousseau.]
But young Harden interrupted her with small courtesy. "Let her be married now, or not at all," he said, and as the heir of Harden as a prospective son-in-law was very different from the heir of Harden as a prisoner, she feared to say him nay, lest he went back on his word.
So a priest was sent for, and in great haste William Scott of Harden was wedded to Margaret Murray of Elibank, and then they two set off alone, over the hills to the old Tower of Oakwood—he, with high thoughts of anger and revenge in his heart for the trick that had been played him;—she, poor thing, wondering wistfully what the future held in store for her.
The day was cold and wet, and halfway over the Hangingshaw Height he heard a stifled sob behind him, and, looking over his shoulder, he saw his little woebegone bride trying in vain with her numbed fingers to guide her palfrey, which was floundering in a moss-hole, to firmer footing.
The sight would have touched a harder heart than Willie of Harden's, for he was a true son of his mother, and the Flower of Yarrow was aye kind-hearted; and suddenly all his anger vanished.
"God save us, lassie, but there's nothing to greet about," he said, turning his horse and taking her reins from her poor stiff fingers, and, though the words were rough, his voice was strangely gentle. "'Tis not thy fault that things have fallen out thus, and if I be a trifle angered, in good faith it is not with thee. Come," and, as he spoke, he stooped down and lifted her bodily from her saddle, and swung her up in front of him on his great black horse. "Leave that stupid beast of thine alone; 'twill find its way back to Elibank soon enough, I warrant. We will go over the hill quicker in this fashion, and thou wilt have more shelter from the rain. There is many a good nag on the hills at Harden, and, when she hears of our wedding, I doubt not but that my mother will have one trained for thee."
[Footnote 13: Cry.]
Poor Meg caught her breath. She did not feel so much afraid of her husband now that she was close to him, and his arm was round her; besides, the shelter from the rain was very pleasant; but still her heart misgave her.
"Thy Lady Mother, she is very beautiful," she faltered, "and doubtless she looked for beauty in her sons' wives."
Then, for ever and a day, all resentment went out of Willie of Harden's heart, and pure love and pity entered into it.
"If her sons' wives are but good women, my mother will be well content," he said, and with that he kissed her.
And I trow that that kiss marked the beginning of Meg Scott's happiness.
For happy she always was. She was aye plain-looking—nothing on earth could alter her features—but with great happiness comes a look of marvellous contentment, which can beautify the most homely face, and she was such a clever housekeeper (no one could salt beef as she could), and so modest and gentle, that her handsome husband grew to love her more and more, and I wot that her face became to him the bonniest and the sweetest face in the whole world.
Sons and daughters were born to them, strapping lads and fair-faced lassies, and, in after years, when old Wat o' Harden died, and Sir William reigned in his stead, in the old house at the head of the glen, he was wont to declare that for prudence, and virtue, and honour, there was no woman on earth to be compared with his own good wife Meg.
DICK O' THE COW
"Now Liddesdale has layen lang in, There is na ryding there at a'; The horses are a' grown sae lither fat, They downa stir out o' the sta'.
Fair Johnie Armstrong to Willie did say— 'Billy, a riding we will gae; England and us have lang been at feid; Ablins we'll light on some bootie.'"
It was somewhere about the year 1592, and Thomas, Lord Scroope, sat at ease in his own apartment in Carlisle Castle. He had finished supper, and was now resting in a great oak chair before a roaring fire. A tankard of ale stood on a stool by his side (for my Lord of Scroope loved good cheer above all things), and his favourite hound lay stretched on the floor at his feet.
To judge by the look on his face, he was thinking pleasant thoughts just then. He held the office of Warden of the English Marches, as well as that of Governor of Carlisle Castle, and in those lawless days the post was not an easy one. There was generally some raid or foray which had to be investigated, some turbulent Scot pursued, or mayhap some noted freebooter hung; but just at present the country-side was at peace, and the Scotts, and Elliots, and Armstrongs, seemed to be content to stay quietly at home on their own side of the Border.
So that very day he had sent off a good report to his royal mistress, Queen Elizabeth, then holding her court in far-off London, and now he was dreaming of paying a long deferred visit to his Castle of Bolton in Lancashire.
A sharp knock at the door came as a sudden interruption to these dreams. "Enter," he cried hastily, wondering to himself what message could have arrived at the castle at that hour of night.
It was his own poor fool who entered, for in Carlisle Castle high state was kept, and Lord Scroope had his jester, like any king.
The man was known to everyone as "Dick o' the Cow," the reason probably being that his wife helped to eke out his scanty wages by keeping three cows, and selling their milk to the honest burghers of Carlisle. He was a harmless, light-hearted fellow, whom some men called half-witted, but who was much cleverer than he appeared at first sight to be.
As a rule he was always laughing and making jokes, but to-night his face was long and doleful.
"What ails thee, man?" cried Lord Scroope impatiently. "Methinks thou hast forgot thine office, else why comest thou here with a face that would make a merry man sad?"
"Alack, Master," answered the fool, "up till now I have been an honest man, but at last I must turn my hand to thieving, and for that reason I would crave thy leave to go over the Border into Liddesdale."
"Tush!" said the Warden impatiently, "I love not such jesting. I hear enough about thieving and reiving, and such-like business, without my very fool dinning it into my ears. Leave such matters for my Lord of Buccleuch and me to settle, Sirrah, and bethink thee of thy duty. 'Tis easier to crack jokes and sing songs in the safe shelter of Carlisle Castle than to ride out armed against these Scottish knaves."
But Dick knelt at his master's feet.
"This is no jest, my lord," he said. "For once in his life this poor fool is in earnest. For I am like to be ruined if I cannot have revenge. Thou knowest how my wife and I live in a little cottage just outside the city walls, and how, with my small earnings, I bought three milch cows. My wife is a steady woman and industrious, and she sells the milk which these three cows give, to the people in the city, and so she earns an honest penny."
"In good sooth, a very honest penny," repeated Lord Scroope, laughing, for 'twas well known in Carlisle that the milk which was sold by Dick o' the Cow's wife was thinner and dearer than any other milk sold in the town.
"Last night," went on the fool, "these Scottish thieves, the Armstrongs of Liddesdale, rode past the house, and, of course, they must needs drive these cows off, and, not content with that, they broke open the door, and stole the very coverlets off my bed. My wife bought these coverlets at the Michaelmas fair, and, I trow, what with the loss of them, and the loss of the cows, she is like to lose her reason. So, to comfort her, I have promised to bring them back. Therefore, my lord, I crave leave of thee to go over into Liddesdale, and see what I can lay my hands on there."
The blood rose to the Warden's face. "By my troth, but thou art not frightened to speak, Sirrah," he cried. "Am I not set here to preserve law and order, and thou wouldst have me give thee permission to steal?"
"Nay, not to steal," said the fool slyly; "I only crave leave to get back my own, or, at least, the money's worth for what was my own."
Lord Scroope pondered the request for a minute or two.
"After all," he thought to himself, "what can this one poor man do against such a powerful clan as the Armstrongs? He will be killed, most likely, and that will be the end of it. So there can be no great harm in letting him go."
"If I give thee leave, wilt thou swear that thou wilt steal from no one but those who stole from thee?" he asked at last.
"That I will," said Dick readily. "I give thee my troth, and there is my right hand upon it. Thou canst hang me for a thief myself, if I take as much as a bannock of bread from the house of any man who hath done me no harm."
So my Lord of Scroope let him go.
A blithe man was Dick o' the Cow as he went down the streets of Carlisle next morning, for he had money in his pocket, and a big scheme floating in his brain. It mattered little to him that men smiled to each other as they passed him, and whispered, "There goes my Lord of Scroope's poor jester."
"He laughs the longest who laughs the last," he thought to himself, "and mayhap all men will envy me before long."
First of all, he went and bought a pair of spurs, and a new bridle, which he carefully hid in his breeches pocket, then he turned his back on Carlisle and set out to walk over Bewcastle Waste into Liddesdale. It was a long walk, but he footed it bravely, and at last he arrived at Pudding-burn House, a strongly fortified place, held by John Armstrong, "The Laird's Jock," as he was called, son of the Laird of Mangerton, and a man of importance in the clan. He was known to be both just and generous, and the poor fool thought that he would go to him, and tell him his story, in the hope that he would force the rest of the Armstrongs to give him back his three cows. But when he came near the Pudding-burn House, he found to his dismay that the two Armstrongs who had stolen his cows, Johnie and Willie, had stopped there, on their way home, with all their men-at-arms, and, from the sounds of feasting and mirth which he heard as he approached, he suspected that one, at least, of his three cows had been killed to provide the supper.
"Ah well," thought he to himself, "I am but a poor fool, and there are three-and-thirty armed men against me. To fight is impossible, so I must e'en set my wits to work against their strength of arms."
So he walked boldly up to the house, and demanded to see the Laird's Jock. There was much laughter among the men-at-arms as he was led into the great hall, for everyone had heard of my Lord of Scroope's jester, and, when they knew that it was he, they all crowded round to see what he was like.
He knew his manners, and bowed right low before the master of the house. "God save thee, my good Laird's Jock," he said, "although I fear me I cannot wish so well to all thy company. For I come here to bring a complaint against two of these men—against Johnie and Willie Armstrong, who, with their followers, broke into my house near Carlisle these two nights past, and drove away my three good milk cows, forbye stealing three coverlets from my bed. And I crave that I get my own again, and that justice may be meted out to the dishonest varlets."
These words were greeted by a shout of laughter, for these were rough and lawless times, when might was right, and the strong tyrannised over the weak, and it seemed ridiculous to see this poor fool standing in the middle of all these armed moss-troopers, and expecting to be heard.
"He deserves to be hanged for his insolence," said Johnie Armstrong, who had been the leader of the company.
"Run him through with a sword," said Willie, laughing; "'tis less trouble, and 'twill serve the same end."
"No," cried another. "'Tis not worth while to kill him. He is but a fool at the best. Let us give him a good beating, and then let him go."
But the Laird's Jock heard them, and his voice rang out high above the rest. "Why harm the poor man?" he said. "After all, he hath but come to seek his own, and he must be both hungry and footsore." Then, turning to the fool, he added kindly, "Sit thyself down, my man, and rest thee a little. I am sorry that we cannot exactly give thee thy cattle back again, but at least we can give thee a slice from the leg of one of them. Beshrew me if I have tasted finer beef for many a long day."
Amid roars of laughter a slice of beef was cut from the enormous leg which lay roasted on the great table, and placed before Dick. But he could not eat it, he could only think what a fine cow it had been when it was alive. At last he slipped away unobserved out of the house, and, looking about for somewhere to sleep, he found an old tumble-down house filled with peats.
He crept into it, and lay there, wondering and scheming how he could avenge himself.
Now it had always been the custom at Mangerton Hall, where the Laird's Jock had been brought up, that whoever was not in time for one meal had to wait till the next, and he made the same rule hold good at Pudding-burn House.
As the poor fool lay among the peats, he could see what was going on through a crack in the door, and he noticed that, as the Armstrongs' men were both tired and hungry, they did not take time to put the key away safely after attending to their horses and locking the stable door, but flung it hastily up on the roof, where it could easily be found if it were wanted, and hurried off in case they were late for their supper.
"Here is my chance," he thought to himself, and, as soon as they were all gone into the house, he crept out, and took down the key, and entered the stable. Then he did a very cruel thing. He cut every horse, except three, on one of its hind legs, "tied it with St Mary's knot," as it was called; so that he made them all lame. Then he hastily drew the spurs and the new bridle out of his breeches pocket. He buckled on the spurs, and began to examine the three horses which he had not lamed. He knew to whom they belonged. Two of them, which were standing together, belonged to Johnie and Willie Armstrong, and were the very horses they had ridden when they stole the cows. The third, a splendid animal, which had a stall to itself, plainly belonged to the Laird's Jock.
"I will leave the Laird's Jock's," thought Dick to himself, "for I cannot take three, and he is a kind man; but Johnie's and Willie's must go. 'Twill perhaps teach them what comes of dishonest ways."
So saying, he slipped the bridle over the head of one horse, and tied a rope round the neck of the other, and, opening the stable door, he led them out quietly, and then, mounting one of them, he galloped away as fast as he could.
The next morning, when the men went to the stable to see after their horses, there were shouts of anger and consternation. And no wonder. For it was easy to be seen that thirty of the horses would never put foot to the ground again; other two were stolen; and there was only one, the beautiful bay mare which belonged to the Laird's Jock, which was of any use at all.
"Now who hath done this cruel thing?" cried the master of the house in great anger. "Let me know his name, and by my soul, he shall be punished."
"'Twas the varlet whom we all took to be such a fool," cried Johnie; "the rascal who came here last night whining for his precious cows. A thousand pities but we had done as I said, and hanged him on the nearest tree."
"Hold thy tongue and take blame to thyself," said the Laird's Jock sharply. "Did I not tell thee, ere thou rode to Carlisle, thou and Willie and thy thieving band, that the two countries were at peace, and if thou began this work once more, 'twas hard to say where it would end? Truly the tables are indeed turned. For this poor fool, as thou callest him, hath befooled us all, for the men's horses are maimed and useless, thine own and thy brother's are stolen, and there but remains this good bay mare of mine. Beshrew me, but it seems as if the fellow had some gratitude left that he did not touch her, for I love her as I never loved a horse before."
"Give her to me," cried Johnie Armstrong quickly, stung by this well-earned reproof, "and I will bring the two horses back, and the cunning fool with them, either alive or dead. 'Tis a far cry from here to Carlisle, and I trow he could ride but slowly in the darkness."
"A likely story," said the Laird's Jock. "The fool, as thou callest him, hath already stolen two good horses, and to send another after him would but be sending good siller after bad."
"An' dost thou think that he could take the horse from me?" asked Johnie indignantly, and he pleaded so hard to be allowed to pursue Dick, that at last the Laird's Jock gave him leave.
He wasted no time in seeking his armour, but, snatching up hastily his kinsman's doublet, sword, and helmet, he leaped on the bay mare and galloped away.
He rode so furiously that by midday he overtook Dick on Canonbie Lee, not far from Longtown.
The poor fool had had to ride slowly, for he was not very much accustomed to horses, and it was not easy for him to manage two. He looked round in alarm when he heard the thunder of hoofs behind him, but his face cleared when he saw that Johnie Armstrong was alone.
"I have outwitted a whole household," he thought to himself; "beshrew me if I cannot tackle one man, even although it be Johnie Armstrong."
All the same he put his horses to the gallop, and went on as fast as he could.
"Now hold, thou traitor thief, and stand for thy life," shouted Johnie in a passion.
Dick glanced hastily over his shoulder, and then he pulled his horses round suddenly. He could fight better than most men thought, when he was put to it.
"Art thou alone, Johnie?" he said tauntingly. "Then must I tell thee a little story. I am an unlettered man, being but a poor fool, as thou knowest, but I try to do my duty, and every Sunday I go to church in Carlisle city with my betters. And at our church we have a right good preacher, though his sermons run through my poor brain as if it were a sieve; but there are three words which I aye remember. The first two of these are 'faith' and 'conscience,' and it seems to me that ye lacked both of them when ye came stealing in the dark to my humble cottage, knowing full well that I could not defend myself, and stole my cows, and took my wife's coverlets. What the third word is, I cannot at this moment remember, but it means that when a man lacks faith and conscience he deserves to be punished, and therefore have I punished thee."
Johnie Armstrong felt that he was being laughed at, and, blind with fury, he took his lance and flung it at the fool, thinking to kill him. But he missed his aim, and it only glanced against Dick's doublet, and fell harmless to the ground.
Dick saw his advantage, and rode his horse straight at his enemy, and, taking his cudgel by the wrong end, he struck Johnie such a blow on the head that he fell senseless to the ground.
Then was the fool a proud man. "Lord Scroope shall hear of this, Johnie," he said to himself, with a chuckle of delight, as he dismounted, and stripped the unconscious man of his coat-of-mail, his steel helmet, and his two-handed sword. He knew that if he went home empty-handed, and told his master that he had fought with Johnie Armstrong and defeated him, Lord Scroope would laugh him to scorn, for Johnie was known to be one of the best fighters on the Borders; but these would serve as proofs that his story was true.
Then, taking the bay mare by the bridle, he mounted his horse once more, and rode on to Carlisle in triumph.
When Johnie Armstrong came to his senses, he cursed the English and all belonging to them with right goodwill. "Now verily," he said to himself, as he turned his face ruefully towards Liddesdale, "'twill be a hundred years and more ere anyone finds me fighting with a man who is called a fool again."
When Dick o' the Cow rode into the courtyard of Carlisle Castle with his three horses, the first man he met was My Lord of Scroope. Now the Warden knew the Laird's Jock's bay mare at once, and at the sight of her he flew into a violent passion. For he knew well enough that if Dick had stolen three horses from the Armstrongs, that powerful clan would soon ride over into Cumberland to avenge themselves, and had he not written to Queen Elizabeth, not three days before, of the peace which prevailed on the Borders?
"By my troth, fellow," he said in deep vexation, "I'll have thee hanged for this."
Poor Dick was much taken aback at this unlooked-for welcome. He had expected to be greeted as a hero, instead of being threatened with death.
"'Twas thyself gave me leave to go, my Lord," he said sullenly.
"Ay, I gave thee leave to go and steal from those who stole from thee, an thou couldst," said Lord Scroope in reply; "but beshrew me if I ever gave thee leave to steal from the good Laird's Jock. He is a peaceful man, and a true, and meddles not the Border folk. 'Twas not he who stole thy cows."
Then Dick held up the coat-of-mail, and the helmet, and the two-handed sword. "On my honour, I won them all in fair and open fight," he cried. "Johnie Armstrong stole my cows, and 'twas he who followed me on the Laird's Jock's mare, and clad in the Laird's Jock's armour. He would fain have slain me with his lance, but by God's grace it glanced from my doublet, and I felled him to the ground with my cudgel."
"Well done!" cried the Warden, slapping his thigh in his delight. "By my soul, but it was well done. My poor fool is more of a man than I thought he was. If the horse be the fair spoil of war, then will I buy her of thee. See, I will give thee fifteen pounds for her, and throw a milk cow into the bargain. 'Twill please thy wife to have milk again."